by Olusegun Adeniyi
The 2018 edition of the Media Cooperation for Belt and Road ends tomorrow in Beijing after spending the past four days in Boao, Hainan Province of China. This year, there are 221 media practitioners from several countries across all continents. At the opening session on Tuesday, I was one of the guest speakers and the only African (it was me and an Egyptian last year). Below is my presentation which was well received, especially by participants from other African countries who said I spoke their minds.
Under the auspices of the African Initiative for Governance (AIG) Advisory Board which he chairs, and of which I am also a member, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo on 8th January this year delivered a lecture on leadership at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University. During the question and answer session that followed his presentation, Obasanjo recounted an experience while on a visit to the United States last year, when a top American politician asked him: ‘How are you coping with your new colonial master in Africa?’
Although Obasanjo said he disputed the claim, it is not only in Washington that there are whispering campaigns about the nature of the Chinese relationship with Africa, there also concerns within the continent. That perhaps explains why a few weeks ago, at the Forum on China – Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting in Beijing, many African leaders had to speak to this growing insinuation on which I intend to lend my perspective this morning. “In the values that it promotes, in the manner that it operates, and the impact it has on African countries, FOCAC refutes the view that a new colonialism is taking hold in Africa, as our detractors would have us believe,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who co-chaired the event with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Exactly two years ago, at the invitation of the Chinese government, I spoke at the China-Africa Public Diplomacy Forum held in Dares Salaam, Tanzania. On that occasion, Haiwainet-Africa Online was launched by People’s Daily. Mr Wang Yongfu, the Deputy Editor in Chief for Overseas Edition, who spoke that night reminded us that in 2015, President Xi Jinping gave them a mandate to “tell Chinese stories well, spread Chinese voice well, and try to be the bridge of confidence-building, doubts-clearing and strength-uniting”.
There is no doubt that People’s Daily has been very effective in carrying out that mandate and the annual Media Cooperation Forum on Belt and Road is a clear testimony while the theme for this year, ‘Contribution by All, Benefits for All’ is particularly apt. On a personal note, let me also state that at a period when journalists are disappearing inside the embassies of some countries, it feels good to enjoy a measure of presidential treatment here in the Hainan Province of China, even as a reporter. So, I thank People’s Daily for the rare hospitality extended to some of us since arrival yesterday.
If there is anything that affirms the significance of the Belt and Road Initiative, it is the recent launch of the $20bn Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, a huge testimony to Chinese ingenuity. I understand that the bridge, which is by far longer than any other anywhere in the world, has some unique safety features like monitoring the heart rate and blood pressure of anybody who drives past just as yawning more than three times in 20 seconds could trigger an alert from the “yawn cam”.
While a bridge that captures yawn is farfetched in the society I come from, where majority of our people actually yawn as a result of hunger, let me attest to the fact that we have also seen the impact of the Belt and Road in critical sectors of the economy. Indeed, in the course of his bilateral meeting with the Chinese president on 5th September in Beijing, President Muhammadu Buhari of my country solicited support for the Mambilla hydropower project which remains a key priority for his government with the hope of funding it with a $4.923 billion concessionary loan from the China Exim bank.
Meanwhile, there are already many Chinese-funded projects in Nigeria and I will highlight some of them before I speak to the issue of ‘colonial master’. In December 2011, $362 million was expended on the NigComSat 1- R project, a space satellite which serves as backbone for large parts of Nigeria’s telecommunications infrastructure. Between 2014 and 2015, the sum of $399 million was spent on the installation of 2000 CCTV cameras for Abuja and Lagos while the Abuja-Kaduna rail project received about $500 million in July 2016. Also, the Abuja light rail project phase I, which commenced in November 2012, received $500 million for its completion.
The Galaxy Backbone project loan agreement signed in January 2013 was completed last month after receiving an initial amount of $117 million with a counterpart funding of $17 million provided by the federal government. The $984 million loan agreement for the Zungeru hydropower plant project, expected to be completed in 2020, was signed in September 2013. Two months earlier, a loan agreement was signed for four airports terminal expansions in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Lagos and Kano. The initial funding was $500 million with a counterpart fund of $100m provided by the federal government.
The Lagos-Ibadan railway project has received $1.26 billion. The loan agreement was signed on 18th August 2017 while that of the Greater Abuja water supply project costing $460 million was signed on 29th May 2018. On the same day, an agreement for the supply of rolling stock and depot equipment for the Abuja light rail phase 1 project worth $165m was signed alongside the upgrading and rehabilitation of Keffi-Akwanga-Lafia road project, worth $460 million.
Other loan agreements that are currently undergoing due diligence at the Chinese Exim Bank include the Ibadan-Kaduna segment of Lagos-Kano railway modernization project worth $5.389 billion; the Kano-Kaduna segment worth $1.355 billion; the coastal railway project worth $12.421 billion; the Galaxy Backbone phase II project worth $328 million; the Abuja rail mass transit phase II project worth $1.252 billion; the four airports terminal expansion project phase II, worth $209 million as well as the ancillary works on four Airports terminal expansion, worth $184 million. The sum of $846 million has already been earmarked for the dualization of 9th Mile (Enugu) – Otukpo-Makurdi road section II of Keffi-Akwanga-Lafia-Makurdi aside the approval for the sum of $800 million for the Niger Delta east-west road.
Similarly, the sum of $1.063 billion will go to the Gurara II multi-purpose project while the NTA digitalization project which is awaiting the federal government approval is worth $500 million along with the power transmission project worth another $500 million. Others in the pipelines: The Akwanga-Jos-Bauchi-Gombe carriageway project worth $1.333 billion; the Kano urban light rail project (Phase I) that will cost $673.2 million; the e-border solution project costing $175.5 million with an additional $127.45 million for the e-prison project and $81.7 million for the e-post project of NIPOST.
There are also financial expectations from the Chinese Exim Bank for the construction of the Gelegele River Port in Edo State at $371 million while the Oyo State light rail project will cost $275 million. In addition to these projects, there are a number of collaborative efforts between Nigeria and China, including the Bilateral Currency Swap Agreement (BCSA) with the CBN and the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) deal with Ruyi Group, the largest Chinese cotton, wool, textile and garment company to transform Nigeria’s cotton value chain.
From the foregoing, it is easy to see that the Chinese authorities are investing a lot of money in the Nigerian economy. Even those who are envious of China-African relations agree that it is beneficial to the continent where there is a huge infrastructural gap. As has been demonstrated by the Chinese themselves, a major key to lifting the people out of poverty is through rapid infrastructure and human capital developments.
However, there are also concerns in many African countries that these monumental projects are not translating into jobs for the teeming population of young people. Although domestic governments in Africa should be held responsible for this problem, the fact that the Chinese government is close to these governments and has, in most instances become their enablers, is increasingly alienating them from the people. That is also why the narrative of the new colonial master is becoming popular.
While the Chinese government has been able to lift millions of their citizens from poverty on an annual basis, the reverse is the case in most of the African countries. In Nigeria, for instance, more and more people are actually falling below the poverty line, due in part to an uncontrolled population growth and a succession of inept leadership. Yet, it is in the face of this growing hopelessness that there is a corresponding feeling by many young people that the Chinese are just piling up debts that they would have to settle in future. That accounts for the colonial master narrative.
Of course, we must make a distinction between the colonialism of physical occupation and exploitative extraction of resources that we had in the past and the indirect control or neo-colonialism that the Chinese are being accused of. The latter is not physically controlling and more supportive of trade and infrastructural development on the continent but it is nonetheless viewed with distrust and apprehension. While we can argue that this feeling is being fueled by the West, which has a real competition for sphere of influence, there are also genuine concerns about how Chinese companies are using cheaper products to squeeze out, and even killing, domestic companies in textile and other sectors aside the accusation of land grabbing in certain parts of Africa. This morning, I shared the breakfast table with my friend from Zambia and it’s obvious that there are serious misgivings about the Chinese takeover of the airport being built in their country.
Your excellencies, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, if I make anybody uncomfortable this morning, it is because I believe we should use forums like this to share some inconvenient truths as genuine friends must always do. China has provided significant resources for the advancement of Africa so it is in her interest that the relationship be seen as one based on shared humanity and prosperity, not as a new colonial master coming under the guise of loans and lopsided trade.
As I thank People’s Daily for inviting me again this year, let me also add that as we continue to enhance ties with Beijing to boost and modernize our roads, ports, railways and telecommunication networks in Africa, forums like this are also important so that we can continue to share our development experiences in the bid to enhance the quality of what Belt and Road delivers on our continent and secure the buy-in of all critical stakeholders.